GAME NAME: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
DEVELOPER(S): Ubisoft Montpellier
PLATFORM(S): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
GENRE(S): Puzzle, Adventure
RELEASE DATE(S): June 25th, 2014
The moment we saw that dog in the first official Valiant Hearts: The Great War trailer, we knew we were in for an emotional roller-coaster. Everything faded into the background as we watched said canine bound across a graphically impressive war torn France, all the while awaiting for something terrible to happen to him. It turns out that, that “stuff in the background” comprises not only of a beautiful hand-drawn art styles but also one of the most compelling and emotive gameplay experiences to release this year – one we wholly recommend.
The game follows five different protagonists on either side of the conflict during the first World War. Rather than the traditional American dude-bros you’d expect, however, you take control of a German named Karl, his French father-in-law Emile, a Belgian nurse called Anna, the aforementioned dog called Walt and yes, finally, an American called Freddie (although he does fight for the French). What’s immediately noticeable is despite the game taking place during one of the most devastating wars in human history, very rarely is there ever any violence of any kind. None of the characters actually wholeheartedly fight for their countries and in a much more human (and practical) way just focus on helping one another and surviving day to day. People may die in the background (and often do) but this death is never trivialized, and as a result while it may at first appear to be an action game, the core gameplay concept in Valiant Hearts is actually a series of puzzles.
As far as difficulty or complexity goes, none of these puzzles are all too daunting and the game actually presents them rather cleverly so that they fall in line with the story, constantly moving you forwards and allowing you to become emotionally attached to the characters. Helping wounded soldiers as Anna or rescuing people from houses as Walt isn’t particularly taxing, but given the terrifying context and unique personalities of those around you, the entire experience is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. That’s not to say you won’t get some good, old-fashioned running and gunning, but the sequences are few and far between and ultimately feel rather weak given the context of the rest of the game.
Of course, the overall experience is greatly benefited by the beautiful art style. Valiant Hearts uses the UbiArt framework engine, the same engine used for the recent Rayman games as well as Child of Light, and just like those games it features an incredibly beautiful hand drawn aesthetic. Everything appears bright and colorful (a feat itself given the context) and more impressively looks very good in motion, something that somewhat plagued Child of Light. There are also some incredibly ornate and beautiful pieces, and the level of detail is generally very impressive with many of the individual soldiers given unique touches to help differentiate them from their peers.
Whether it be tonally or visually, one of the biggest overarching themes is that of “oppression”. Where other games may try and constantly beat you over the head with how bad war is (something even the phenomenal Spec Ops: The Line is guilty of), Valiant Hearts truly looks at the nature of humanity. Not man’s nature during wartime or how evil we can be to one another, but rather simply how good and bad can blur into a shade of grey, and how during even one of the worst moments in human history people will still help each other. This may seem a bit sappy and is unarguably a rather clichéd theme in other forms of media, but in gaming it’s a refreshing change of pace, one that we ultimately hope to see more of.
That being said, there are a number of moments that are clichéd and we could have done without. In the same breath that we compliment Valiant Hearts for not trivializing the deaths of all those who fought in WWI, the game pulls a number of cheap tricks in parts to make it seem as if one of your protagonists have been killed. This toying with the emotions is never used for narrative purposes but rather as an artificial stopgap, knowing that it will illicit some emotional reaction from you as the player. In a game that so excellently provides for genuine human connection, these situations feel like an extra point of contention and wholly unnecessary. The game also has some minor issues with voice acting, with one of the characters having a French accent during gameplay and an English one during scenes with voice over. To be fair, this could of been done for creative purposes but ultimately feels a bit jarring given how excellently the rest of the game is presented.
It’s ultimately very difficult to review a game like Valiant Hearts. Like a really good Disney movie, not only does it look great but it also knows just when to make you smile and tug at the heartstrings. A lesser game might come across feeling trite or overly cliched – focusing on the “human aspect” of WWI, but Valiant Hearts more than anything else also shows an incredible level self-restraint, a skill reserved by only the best works of art.